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Oceans on the verge of new mass extinction

The oceans are on the cusp of a new mass extinction that could wipe out thousands of species by the end of this century.

That’s the grim warning from one of the world’s leading marine conservation biologists as he delivers the prestigious St Andrews Prize for the Environment Lecture next week.

Professor Callum Roberts is predicting catastrophic damage to life in the oceans unless urgent action is taken. In a hard hitting message he is calling on governments across the globe to ban fishing in a third of the world’s seas.

“It is not geological or extra-terrestrial cataclysm that is to blame, it is us. Global climate change is happening in the sea too, but with an added problem,” he said.

“Carbon dioxide is turning the oceans more acidic, with potentially devastating consequences for every creature that makes a chalky shell or skeleton, like corals, prawns, crabs and snails, and many others too.

“Ocean acidification in the geological past caused mass extinctions and shut down the growth of coral reefs, the most diverse ecosystems in the sea. Today it is happening more quickly, and if left unchecked its harmful consequences will last for tens of thousands of years.”

Calling for a “new deal for life in the sea”, Professor Roberts said, “We need to fish less, using less destructive methods, waste less, pollute less and protect more, much more.

“The best science we have suggests we need to protect a third of the sea from fishing to make enough of a difference to save species, boost fisheries in surrounding grounds and keep oceans functioning well.”

Professor Roberts also criticised Scotland’s new marine protected areas. “Scotland began well in the process of protecting its marine nature by creating 30 new marine protected areas in 2014,” he said. “But it has veered wildly off course with management proposals that would allow destructive fishing methods like bottom trawling and dredging to continue over the vast majority of their area. “Marine protected areas that fail to protect life within them are worse than useless, because they give the illusion of protection where none is given.

“Marine Scotland needs to urgently upgrade the level of protection on offer for Scotland’s marine protected areas. Real protected areas need real protection – there is no free lunch.”

Professor Roberts will make a clarion call for urgent international action when he delivers the St Andrews Prize for the Environment Prize Lecture “Ocean Extinction Averted – What Will It Take?”  

The public lecture, which is free and open to all, will take place at the Medical and Biological Sciences Lecture Theatre, North Haugh, St Andrews, at 18:00 on Wednesday 22 April 2015. No pre-registration required.

The St Andrews Prize for the Environment is a joint environmental initiative by the University of St Andrews and exploration and production company ConocoPhillips. Since its launch in 1998, 3,900 innovative projects from 64 countries across the world have competed for the prestigious award, all sharing one common goal: to find practical solutions to environmental challenges from around the globe. The winner of this year’s prize, to be awarded on Thursday 23 April 2015, will receive $100,000 USD (£60,000) and the two runners-up will each receive $25,000 USD (£15,000).


Notes to news editors

Professor Callum Roberts is a marine conservation biologist in the Environment Department at York University whose research focuses on human impacts on marine ecosystems.

The three finalists chosen for this year’s prestigious St Andrews Prize for the Environment from 400 entries from around the world are:

  • Chimpanzee Conservation in Guinea, West Africa.
  • Net-Works: From Fishing Nets to Carpet Tiles, the Philippines.
  • The RIPPLE Effect – Integrated Conservation in Malawi.

Find out all you need to know about the St Andrews Prize for the Environment.

Professor Roberts is available for interview. Photographs are available on request.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office, contactable on 01334 467310 or proffice@st-andrews.ac.uk.

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